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Nine-year-old child charged with five counts of first-degree murder after fire in US

Three children and two adults died in the fire in April.

File photo
File photo
Image: Shutterstock/carl ballou

A NINE-YEAR-OLD child accused of causing a mobile home fire that killed three children and two adults in Chicago in Illinois has been charged with five counts of first-degree murder.

The minor also was charged with two counts of arson and one count of aggravated arson, local newspaper the Journal Star reported.

The 6 April fire killed a one-year-old, two two-year-olds, a 34-year-old man and a 69-year-old woman at the Timberline Mobile Home Park near the village of Goodfield, about 240km southwest of Chicago.

Woodford County State’s Attorney Greg Minger would not reveal other details about the suspect, including a possible relationship to the victims.

No child as young as this has been accused in a mass killing since at least 2006, according to a mass murder database compiled by AP/USA TODAY/Northeastern University.

Minger said he scoured multiple reports on the fire before proceeding with prosecution. Woodford County Coroner Tim Ruestman said the fire was started intentionally.

“It was a heavy decision,” Minger said. “It’s a tragedy, but at the end of the day, it’s charging a very young person with one of the most serious crimes we have. But I just think it needs to be done at this point, for finality.”

A major challenge for prosecutors will be trying to prove the child formed an intent to kill in advance, which is required in first-degree murder cases, explained Gus Kostopoulos, a former prosecutor-turned-juvenile defence lawyer in Chicago.

Kostopoulos said he didn’t know if nine-year-olds “can form intent to commit murder”, stating: “They don’t know people die and don’t come back to life.”

A leading Illinois advocate for children ensnared in the criminal justice system sharply criticised the decision to charge a child so young with murder.

“The charges are completely out of line, given everything we have learned … especially about the brain development of children,” Betsy Clark, the president of Juvenile Justice Initiative, which is based in Illinois, said.

Probation and counselling

A new United Nations report on the prosecution of children recommends that children under 14 should never be prosecuted, no matter the crime. Clark said 14 is the minimum age of criminal responsibility in many countries, including Germany.

In the 1890s, Illinois became among the first places in the world to establish a juvenile court, thereby taking minors out of the adult system, Clark said. But the case announced this week shows Illinois is no longer on the cutting age of juvenile justice, she said.

“We used to be a world leader and now we are so far behind,” she said.

Charges alleging violent crimes against children are rare, Clark said, adding that she hasn’t heard of other cases in which someone so young was charged with so many killings.

If convicted, the child could be placed on probation for at least five years but not beyond the age of 21, Minger said. Therapy and counselling would be likely.

“Probation, given the age, is about the only outcome that could happen here,” he said.

No arrest warrant is to be issued for the suspect, Minger said. The suspect will be appointed a lawyer and will be subject to a bench trial, in front of a judge, he said.

Under Illinois law, a suspect younger than 10 cannot be detained. And a minor is not given a public jury trial and not entitled to one — unless they are charged as an adult.

The filing of murder charges against children under 10 is rare but not unprecedented.

Last month, a Michigan judge dismissed a murder charge against a nine-year-old accused of fatally shooting his mother in their home. St Joseph County Family Division Judge David Tomlinson ruled that, under Michigan law, the boy was presumed incompetent for trial because he’s not yet 10.

“This case disturbs me more than any case I’ve ever dealt with,” the judge said.

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